Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Prothero's "Religious Literacy"


Stephen Prothero is a professor of religious studies and prolific writer/thinker at the intersection of religion, history, modern times, and education. He seems like a relatively dispassionate observer—more of a tame, cultural Christian than any sort of fervent disciple of Jesus—and so, he is well-suited to speak in objective terms on contentious questions.  

Prothero’s thesis in Religious Literacy is the importance of religious literacy—with a historical review of literacy in America and a call to promoting literacy in the future. In the opening, he contrasts his effort with E.D. Hirsch’s work on cultural literacy. Prothero sees religious literacy as a means to educate (5), whereas Hirsch seems to see cultural literacy as a primary end of education. 
Prothero sees religious illiteracy as equally pervasive but more dangerous, given its importance in making sense of the world—in both an historical and contemporary sense. He is “committed to seeing the study of religion as an indispensable part of a liberal education.” (11) To that end, he provides a 107-page “Dictionary of Religious Literacy” in chapter 6 and a six-page “Religious Literacy Quiz” in an appendix. 

Prothero describes a period of “Eden” in America in this regard—and then “the Fall”. He attributes the Fall primarily to the 2nd Great Awakening in the early-mid 19th C and to post-WWII “revival”. (He argues against the 1960s’s cultural shifts and the famous Supreme Court decisions as primary.) The latter comports with my own sense of the 1950s as the highpoint of American Civil Religion—a deistic, moralistic faith that opposed communism. One clear sign of the limits of 1950s religion: its adherents produced the children of the 60s.

Striving to explain the balance between religious and secular interests throughout America’s history, he observes that today, “Both the RR and the SL feel besieged…The emotions on both sides of this question are understandable, though the irony of the situation—in which each side sees itself as a victim and believes that the other is seizing control of the country—seems lost on everyone concerned…neither faith nor faithlessness is close to either bankruptcy or monopoly.” (27) And he argues it has always been this way—“secular by law…[and] religious by choice”—from the Founding Fathers to the three most recent presidents (28b-30). 

Today, K-12 texts treat religion as “an afterthought or an embarrassment” with a “jack-in-the-box approach: religious characters pop up here and there, typically with all of the color and substance of a circus clown.” (55) This is understandable in part, particularly with younger students, given the desire to make history more interesting. But it’s hardly a method to brag about. Instead, Prothero notes that “none of the classic events in American history…can be understood without knowledge of the religious motivations of [those] who made them happen.” From there, he gives a 10,000-foot view with six pages of examples (56-62). 

Why did schools take a “steer clear” approach (68-69)? To play it safe; confusion about the relevant Supreme Court decisions; ignorance about the establishment clause of the Constitution; conflation of “the crucial distinction between theology and religious studies”; and the secular biases of textbook writers. 

Why did religious literacy fade in the churches? Between churches, believers were looking for common ground among denominations. (Ironically, tolerance among Protestants usually combined with intolerance toward Catholics.) “More than the forces of secularism, it was this sort of religion that would do religious literacy in.” (107, 118-119). 

Within churches, sermons emphasized storytelling over the Bible and doctrine. There was a growing emphasis on passion and experience over knowledge and doctrine—even to the point that knowledge was seen as an opponent of piety: “What for generations had been shameful—religious illiteracy—would become a badge of honor in a nation besotted with the self-made man and the spirit-filled preacher.” (109-111) 

In the schools, it “became nearly impossible to discuss religion in most public schools” (even as early as the 19th C.). There was a shift toward morals over doctrine; textbooks became secularized; tame religious rites became civil more than religious; morality substituted for religion. “The lowest common-denominator Protestantism once preached in public schools morphed into general Christianity, then into generic moralism…not so much salvation as prosperity” (124-127, 135-138)

The famous “revival” of the 1950s was largely of civil religion and “the American way of life”, with passing references to “Judeo-Christian” religion, Eisenhower’s “a deeply felt religious faith and I don’t care what it is”, and Will Herberg’s “faith in faith”. (141-143) “In conforming themselves to American culture, Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism had become little more than parallel paths up the mountain of the American dream.” (9)

Dallas Willard makes similar observations in The Divine Conspiracy, but distinguishes between the Religious Left’s social gospel (often at the expense of a full-blooded Gospel and discipleship) and the Religious Right’s focus on ascension to minimal doctrinal beliefs (what he labels a “bar-code faith”—getting a sticker slapped on you so you can get scanned into heaven). 

As for solutions, Prothero (160) notes that the SCOTUS gave constitutional permission for the academic story of religion in Abington v. Schempp (1963). And he cites William Brennan in the majority opinion: “plainly does not foreclose teaching about the Holy Scriptures or about the differences between religious sects…impossible to teach meaningfully many subjects in the social sciences or the humanities without some mention of religion.” (160).

As for specifics, first, Prothero (165-167) proposes one required course on the Bible in high school—neither to be preached nor debunked; to include (but not be limited to) teaching it as literature; to discuss its influence on economics, politics, art, music, history, etc.; and to familiarize students with it in a religious literacy sort of way. In particular, he recommends the reading of at least Genesis (Leon Kass would agree with this!) and Matthew. 

Second, Prothero (168-171) recommends a required course in world religions in high school—generally, “the seven great religious traditions” with the occasional tailoring to local circumstances (e.g., native American religions). He cites a public school in Modesto, CA that has a course like this one.

Prothero notes that teachers would need to be trained to execute these two courses well and argues that parents should be given an opt-out. Here, I think he’s optimistic about how this would play out in local politics—and misses the larger, underlying economic picture: the real problem here is that monopoly power of the government’s K-12 education (172).

For Christians who are excited about harnessing these ideas to Christian ends, I’d warn you to be (really) careful what you ask for. Imagine who will teach these courses. And even if you get good teaching, would it promote a Christian worldview and encourage discipleship with Jesus or inoculate people with a safe version of pluralistic religion? Prothero makes a similarly sobering observation to open the book—that the countries where church participation is mandated are places where the Church has been emasculated (1). If you’re an opponent of religion in general or Christianity in particular, ironically, the best way to harm it might be to mandate it.

25 Comments:

At September 18, 2012 at 10:54 PM , Blogger Jennifer Buschemeyer said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At September 18, 2012 at 11:08 PM , Blogger Jennifer Buschemeyer said...

Reading or memorizing the Bible in school is not "mandating religion" and it did us absolutely no 'harm' during the 400+ years that we actually practiced it in the public arena. To the contrary, we became wealthy and powerful. With the exception of an atheist here or there, the principles of biblical Christianity were assumed by the people as foundational to our national identity and as a guide for ethical behavior within society. There was no problem or complaint; they were esteemed as good and necessary. Now, reading the Bible in school is going to hurt people?... Not buying in.

 
At September 19, 2012 at 8:50 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

The question, today, is where to go from here. Trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube might not be a good strategy. (Prothero is more optimistic on this project than I am; then again, his goals are different as well.)

 
At September 19, 2012 at 10:12 AM , Blogger Jennifer Buschemeyer said...

It's sad how controversial the Bible has become; simply reading it in school could be bad for people and offensive to Liberty. Prothero is advocating preaching it or teaching it in school and I'm not sure that was ever done? I know it was read and memorized.

Here's an interesting observation which speaks to the toothpaste metaphor: We kicked God/Bible out because a few of us thought it was damaging and then it actually came to be viewed much more so by the general populace *after* we kicked them out. So, yes, it will be difficult to change at this point but not because reading the Bible in school actually *is* damaging, as you seem to be asserting. Does that make sense?

 
At September 19, 2012 at 10:14 AM , Blogger Jennifer Buschemeyer said...

...after, or more likely, because, we kicked them out...

 
At September 19, 2012 at 11:08 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

It can be considered bad for liberty because we don't have much liberty in our govt-run K-12 ed system. Fix that-- and this takes care of itself.

Prothero makes the point that the problems with Biblical illiteracy started well before the 1960s "kick the Bible out of schools" decisions.

My concern on his proposal is whether having the Bible taught in the average public school will be a net plus for the Kingdom of God. It's certainly arguable and I have significant doubts.

 
At September 19, 2012 at 11:29 AM , Blogger Jennifer Buschemeyer said...

What evidence do you have that reading the Bible in public damages Liberty? During the time we read the Bible in public school we were an open and free society, tolerant of other religions and views, protecting free speech, etc.

And the specific 'problems with biblical illiteracy' prior to the 1960's are...

 
At September 19, 2012 at 11:30 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

I don't consider it bad for liberty, but others do. Given their preferences (and ours-- and others), it'd be preferable to allow choice/liberty on such matters.

 
At September 19, 2012 at 11:45 AM , Blogger Jennifer Buschemeyer said...

You didn't really answer my questions but anyway, do you think sterility or neutrality is possible within a culture? We did not just remove the Bible. When we removed the Bible it was replaced other 'truth' but most egregious is the fact that we found God and his words offensive to our sensibilities of freedom and outlawed him from our collective midst. Only those who view freedom and liberty as the guiding light and saving grace of our republic see it like that. Plus, real freedom for all can only exist within the boundaries of moral behavior.

 
At September 19, 2012 at 3:00 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

I didn't catch that the last sentence in the previous post was a question. Sorry!

In the reivew, I gave an overview of his discussion of the 1820-1960 period, where he lays out various contributing factors. One might disagree on the extent-- and which carries more weight among his various explanations-- but I don't see a debate on the existence of those factors.

I do not think (at all) that the public square should be "naked" with respect to religion (to use Richard John Neuhaus' famous phrase/book title). Religious views should hold equal weight with other views-- under everything from freedom of speech to freedom of religion.

But I am more concerned than most people about casual/civil public expressions of religion. And apparently, I'm one of a few people who favors more freedom (in K-12 education) as the most appropriate way to reach that end.

 
At September 19, 2012 at 3:31 PM , Blogger Jennifer Buschemeyer said...

He says things like "it became impossible to discuss religion in most public schools" and "religious literacy was fading" Seems broadly general and nonspecific based on his definitions/interpretations of doctrine or events but I guess I need to read the book. He is saying that's why the Bible ended up being removed? Difficult proving cause/effect there. The court made it illegal because it was identified as a threat to free practice of religion, correct?

I'm all for vouchers in the school system which has nothing to do with outlawing God from our government.

 
At September 19, 2012 at 4:51 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

He's not primarily concerned with the Bible being removed. His primary interest is religious literacy and its fade over time. He argues that "taking the Bible out of the schools" was late to the game-- and a minor player-- to his concerns about religious illiteracy.

I laid out many of those (other) factors in my review. If they're not sufficient, then you'd have to read the book (it is an easy read and the dictionary and appendix make it worthwhile, aside from his arguments) &/or decide that the review/book is irrelevant to your beliefs.

 
At September 19, 2012 at 8:18 PM , Blogger Jennifer Buschemeyer said...

It's not that the country was becoming 'religiously illiterate' that is necessarily bothersome; it's the idea that they decided to criminalize the Scriptures and prayer in public arena as an affront to freedom. If anything caused the problem, it was the way the Scriptures were viewed, not that we finally realized how the Bible was infringing upon freedoms so we justifiably criminalized it. And do you know I had a whole year of Humanities in high school taking exams on Greek culture and the Greek gods. How come their gods didn't get kicked out of school? But no one believes in them anymore so I guess that's why it's ok

 
At September 19, 2012 at 8:46 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Again, Prothero does not debate your point. He merely argues that the cow was way out of the barn by then.

 
At September 19, 2012 at 9:18 PM , Blogger Jennifer Buschemeyer said...

You seemed to be debating it though- talking about how dangerous the Bible would be in public school

 
At September 19, 2012 at 9:30 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

I'm probably not as excited as you are-- worried about how it would work in practice. I'm not excited about cultural Christians leading children in prayer and Bible study.

 
At September 19, 2012 at 9:41 PM , Blogger Jennifer Buschemeyer said...

I'm excited about the fact the it got criminalized, yes. You should be too ;) Libertarians aren't usually worrywarts (nuclear Iran, etc) except when it comes to the bible in publuc schools.

The Bible in school worked out perfectly fine in practice for 400+ years, yes or no?

 
At September 19, 2012 at 9:52 PM , Blogger Jennifer Buschemeyer said...

Worrywort or worrywart? Any guesses before I check?

 
At September 19, 2012 at 9:55 PM , Blogger Jennifer Buschemeyer said...

Worrywart is correct!

 
At September 19, 2012 at 10:11 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

We're talking about two different things: what the Bible did then and how it would work now.

Did it work well in America through the 1960s? Prothero says it was fine for 230 years-- and then a fading, mixed bag after that. Again, the illiteracy does not (nearly) start with the 60s.

 
At September 19, 2012 at 10:53 PM , Blogger Jennifer Buschemeyer said...

So, you agree with me then! There is nothing instrinsically wrong or dangerous about the practice itself and it did work well for a considerable portion of our history; possible caveat may be 'bible illiteracy'. Did you know Protheros defines himself as 'religiously confused' per Wikipedia? So you have the religiously confused diagnosing the biblically illiterate :0

I can sort of buy in to the idea of illiteracy maybe, although still not sure of his definition or even its relevance -- why must people be bible 'literate' to listen to or read some scripture? But I guess he's making his case for *why*they ousted all things Christian (and ended up teaching secular humanism its stead)

But any way you look at it, taking it upon ourselves to make things right by eliminating God and the Bible from our public midst was not a good decision.

 
At September 20, 2012 at 6:44 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

I only touch on this briefly in the review, but he argues that ignorance about religion is "not good"-- both in a subjective, "you oughta know stuff like this", general education sort of way AND if you don't know stuff like this, you won't understand foreign policy, you'll work to limit freedom and religion, etc.

 
At September 20, 2012 at 7:55 AM , Blogger Jennifer Buschemeyer said...

Everyone is practicing a "religion" you know. In the US, we practice and teach a humanist type which somewhat explains why we now worship freedom over God...even within the Christian church.

As for the claim that if I don't understand "religion" (by his definition and standard) I won't understand foreign policy and I will work to limit holy freedom, it sounds like more humanist reasoning. But then maybe it solely depends on which religion I would be seeking to better understand ;) We see from history that embracing the Judeo Christian value system maximized our ability to experience and extend freedom and also made us highly prosperous as well as benevolent (immigration)

 
At September 20, 2012 at 8:23 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Do you think people have sufficient literacy on Islam-- and that ignorance there is dangerous?

 
At September 20, 2012 at 8:36 AM , Blogger Jennifer Buschemeyer said...

Interesting question Eric...yes, the information is out there as public domain and it is all over. People choose to be ignorant on the subject so what can be done about that?

I think I figured out why they let the Greek gods stay in school...Classical culture was humanist!

 

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home